Rio de Janeiro: Latin America`s biggest country was poised to pick Sunday its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, to succeed wildly popular President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, polls show.
If Brazil`s 136 million voters pick Rousseff, as polls suggest, the former Marxist guerrilla turned civil servant and minister in Lula`s government would lead the nation that has become a rising star among developing economies -- an industrial and raw materials powerhouse with an increasingly influential role on the world stage.
Lula`s chosen candidate, a 62-year-old cancer survivor nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her steamroller-like determination and no-nonsense demeanor, is close to netting the majority to be named the outright winner in Sunday`s elections.
Polls give her 50 percent of voter intentions, well ahead of her nearest rival, former Sao Paulo state governor Jose Serra, who trails by more than 20 points.
A former environment minister under Lula, Marina Silva, is in distant third place.
If Rousseff fails to secure a clear-cut victory on Sunday, she and Serra will go to a runoff on October 31 -- a round polls say she would win by a landslide.
Lula, who is barred constitutionally from seeking a third consecutive term, hands over power to his successor January 1, 2011.
The former trade union leader, who celebrates his 65th birthday this month, threw his formidable charisma behind Rousseff on the campaign, hoisting her from unknown into frontrunner status within months.
Rousseff, who resigned as Lula`s chief minister in March to run for president, has promised to continue her mentor`s policies, with their mix of fiscal stability and extensive welfare handouts to Brazil`s poor.
The combination of stable inflation, strengthening currency, dynamic exports and booming domestic consumption has turned Brazil into the world`s eighth-biggest economy, and lifted 29 million Brazilians out of poverty to swell a prosperous middle class.
"I`m convinced the majority of people want continuity from the government.... That`s why I think Dilma will win," Lula said Friday as he and Rousseff toured his stronghold of Sao Bernardo do Campo, on Sao Paulo`s southern outskirts, where he will cast his ballot Sunday.
Rousseff, the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant father and a Brazilian mother, was to vote in her southern home city of Porto Alegre. She and Lula were expected to go to Brasilia afterwards to wait on the results of the elections.
Polling stations were to open at 8:00 am and close at 5:00 pm, local time.
Because of Brazil`s vast area, that meant a two-hour difference between the eastern-most territory, an Atlantic Ocean archipelago called Fernando do Noronha (which would begin voting at 1000 GMT and finish at 1900 GMT), and the western-most region in the Amazon (which would start at 1200 GMT and finish at 2100 GMT).
Preliminary results from exit polls were expected a couple of hours later.
Voting is compulsory for Brazilian adults, and for the past 14 years has been carried out using electronic ballot machines in which numeric codes corresponding to candidates are entered.
Around a million voters will be using the latest version of the machines, which use biometric information to identify them -- an advance said to be unprecedented in the world.
As well as choosing their next president, the electorate will select federal and state legislative representatives, two thirds of the senate, and the governors of Brazil`s 26 states. A total of 21,813 candidates are vying for those various posts.